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Chipotle's tech push paid off big when the coronavirus pandemic hit

A huge emphasis on technology put the restaurant chain in the right place as COVID-19 clamped down.

Chipotle make line

While restaurants have been poster children for the coronavirus economic slowdown, Chipotle Mexican Grill saw digital orders rise 81% during the first quarter and its share price rise almost 12% in the week following the release of those results last week. The company began an aggressive push toward digital interaction with its customers a couple of years before the pandemic, which turned out to be well-timed in ways it couldn't have predicted. 

Now playing: Watch this: Chipotle's tech rush could not have come at a better...

Mobile ordering and dedicated kitchen counters to fulfill those orders were a major push, but even the screens above Chipotle's prep counters were customized. "We've created a digital screen system that doesn't use text but uses images of the ingredients to help a crew member quickly and accurately prepare and order," says Chipotle CTO Curt Garner. "These digital kitchens can work very quickly with a high degree of accuracy."

Chipotle digital pick up shelf

Digital orders are placed on shelves near the front of the restaurant for fast self-serve pickup. Chipotle's CTO doesn't see this changing as restaurants reopen.


Even with the digital emphasis, Garner admits there are times when ordering in the restaurant works better. "If you want to have that conversation for a little bit less or a little bit more or something, or we have (celiac) customers come in and ask the crew member to change gloves before they make their order." To ensure no wheat contamination, in-person orders work best -- when it's possible again.


A decidedly low-tech part of Chipotle's digital push is the tall set of shelves near the front of each restaurant where customers grab their digital order and go. In spite of the self-serve nature of that process, Garner doesn't expect the shelves to disappear as restaurants cautiously reopen. 

"All of our meals are prepared in sealed containers, and then placed in bags that are sealed," he says. This process is "extraordinarily popular" with customers and speeds up delivery by aggregators such as Door Dash and Grub Hub.

Curt Garner had a lot more to say about what it's like at Chipotle during the pandemic. Watch the video above to hear everything he told CNET's Brian Cooley.

Now What is a video interview and panel series with industry leaders, celebrities and influencers covering the major changes and trends impacting business and how consumers connect in the "new normal" 2020 world and beyond. There will always be change in our world, there will always be technology helping us navigate that change, and we'll always discuss surprising twists, turns and potential solutions.